Improving soil health not as easy as applying a new product

The phrase “soil health” has become about as common as tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump over the last two and a half years.

It seems like every agricultural conference in North America is required to organize at least one session on the topic.

The issue is worthwhile and probably merits the attention, but a few companies in the agricultural industry are taking advantage of the phrase to sell products, says a soil fertility expert and member of the Saskatchewan Agriculture Hall of Fame.

“Right now because soil health is something that is very contemporary, or sexy, people are taking advantage of it (that term) and coming up with all kinds of different things,” said Rigas Karamanos, senior agronomist with Koch Fertilizer, who spoke at Ag Days in Brandon Jan. 16.

“People say, ‘oh, soil health. You can apply this (and) you can apply that.’ That’s not what soil health is…. Just going and indiscriminately applying different products does not fix (soil health).”

Karamanos said part of the problem is terminology.

Growers and officials in the agricultural industry are using terms such as soil fertility, soil productivity, soil quality and soil health interchangeably, but Karamanos said they are not the same, pointing to Israel as an example.

The soil in Israel has poor soil fertility but is productive. Israeli farmers make it productive by carefully using fertilizer and irrigation to grow crops.

Similarly, soil health and soil quality are not the same.

Michigan State University offers a tidy description of soil health and how it differs from soil quality: “Soil health refers to self-regulation, stability, resilience … in a soil as an ecosystem. Soil health describes the biological integrity of the soil community — the balance among organisms within a soil and between soil organisms and their environment.… Soil quality is a term that we use when we talk about the physical attributes of soil.”

Karamanos said soil health is about continuous improvement: starting from a certain point based on a list of criteria and tracking changes from that base line

Universities and companies, mostly in the United States, have developed several systems to measure soil health. One popular method is the Solvita test, which measures the amount of carbon dioxide a soil sample releases. A high level of carbon dioxide indicates the soil has a healthy community of micro-organisms.

“There’s a big movement switching toward this idea of having soil health scores,” said Marla Riekman, land management specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.

Karamanos said growers seeking more information about soil health should start with the International Plant Nutrition Institute website.

“If you want to educate yourself, just go and look at those resources.”

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